Spirits producers see slow recovery and mark changes in drinking habits two years on from methanol scandal

Photo: Filip Jandourek

This Sunday, marked two years since prohibition was temporarily introduced in the Czech Republic in reaction to widespread methanol poisoning which eventually claimed almost 50 lives. To stem the deadly tide, the government of Petr Nečas prohibited for a period of two weeks the sale of all alcohol of 20 percent or stronger. But as a result of the measures, legitimate producers were hard hit and it has taken the period since for companies to recover.

Photo: Filip Jandourek
Two years ago, on September 14th, 2012, bar shelves were emptied of hard liquor along with shelves and stalls at supermarkets and liquor stores. The country was suffering a rapidly-increasing number of methanol-related deaths and hospitalizations after a large batch of laced-liquor having made its way into retail shops. To try and quell the widespread poisoning, the government introduced the first ever prohibition in the Czech Republic which would remain in place for two weeks.

Many predicted at the time that the measures would have a major impact on business, grinding smaller producers into the ground. “We can survive for three or four weeks of this.” one told Czech TV in 2012, while another said prohibition would wipe them out. Losses were in the tens of millions.

So far in 2014, the consumption of hard alcohol has returned to around or in some cases slightly above pre-2012 levels. Jan Becher, one of the leading alcohol producers in the country, recently posted numbers showing that sales revenues had gone up nine percent to 1.4 billion crowns, while sales for Rudolf Jelínek, the producer of popular plum brandy, went up by five percent last year. The methanol scandal which so impacted the industry, also changed Czech drinking habits; although many have returned to hard alcohol, their preferences and choices are now often different. Many now opt for higher quality brands, rather than lower-end products, especially, Czech TV noted, when it comes to rum or vodka. One proprietor at a venue in Ostrava’s popular Stodolní Street confirmed hard alcohol is again popular.

“Customers are coming back to Stodolní. I think more and more people are showing up and are not afraid to order hard liquor.”

Photo: Barbora Kmentová
Martin Žufánek, of the Žufánek family distillery, agrees interest is again higher but says that consumers are now more discerning:

“It is very significant that Czech customers are no longer interested in the lowest price but want to know who is behind the product.”

After the methanol scandal, stricter controls were introduced, including new duty stamps. In 2014 consumers can also check details about individual bottles simply by reading the QR code. That said, the methanol affair has not completely faded into the background: just last week, officials uncovered 500 bottles of dubious absinthe in Zlín which reportedly contained up to more than 30 percent of the wood spirit. Such incidents are a dark reminder of what came before and are likely to influence consumers even more to stick with trusted brands.